Nations have, at times, gone through all the turmoil and drama of a revolution
only to conclude, in the end, that far from entering into a new birth of
liberty, they have exchanged one set of masters for another. The Russian
people, disgusted with their long servitude to a worthless
aristocracy, threw off that yoke. What filled the vacuum thence
resulting were the 'Nomenklatura,' the new class of communist
bureaucrats, who were not one whit less greedy and self-interested than
their predecessors, but differed from them only in being less competent,
less sympathetic and less interesting. And so they jettisoned, in their
turn, the 'Nomenklatura,' the privileged communist elite. Modern readers
cannot help but feel nostalgia for the deceased, departed 'author;'
though a pompous, egotistical, self-inflated wind-bag to be sure, at
least he sometimes made sense, which these newly ascendant literary
critics, who have not only declared but achieved their independence,
The story is told of a lady who attended a lecture by
American pragmatist William James. She approached him afterwards to
share her theory that the world rested upon the back of a giant
turtle. 'And upon what does that turtle rest, Madam?' asked he.
'Upon another turtle,' she replied. 'And upon what does this next
one rest, Madam?' the patient savant continued. The pragmatist
continued plodding on in this manner until the victorious lady
announced, 'It's no use, Mr. James. It's turtles all the way down!'
As Roland Barthes explains in the text cited above, "the structure
can be followed, 'run' (like the thread of a stocking) at every
point and at every level, but there is nothing beneath. . ." The
narrative rests, not upon the bed-rock of 'what actually happened,'
but upon another narrative, which in its turn rests upon yet a third
narrative. . .
Historical author David Barton is much exercised against the
post-modernists. But he is caught in their web. Every American
school-child has learned that the American revolution was made by a
handful of Virginia squires gathered together in a back room.
Because these men were slave-holders, we have grown disenchanted
with our founding fathers. Instead of sharpening his tools to drill down
through the inherited narrative to the bed-rock of actual reality which either
underlies, or shifts and fails to support it,
the post-modernist posits nothing but narrative, all the way down.
Like the lady's turtles, one narrative rests upon another; there is
no 'reality' down there at all. Although the jury may be forbidden
by the judge's instructions from disallowing testimony against which
no rebuttal has been brought, the post-modernist may believe
whichever narrative he likes best. . .even the school-child's
narrative, that a handful of Virginia squires made the American
revolution. Two faces carved on Mount Rushmore, Thomas Jefferson and
George Washington, are the revolution. Now this narrative has begun
to pall; modern readers dislike reviewing Jefferson's patronizing racist
drivel, and it's painful to be reminded that American slave-owners got a
harem in the bargain, along with a work force (even if the DNA
evidence leaves open the possibility it could have been Randolph,
Manifestly we need a new narrative. Is it really so apparent that
this once popular narrative, that the revolution was made by a
handful of Virginia squires, has successfully drilled down to the
bedrock of very reality? Or is it not manifestly absurd to suppose
any revolution ever so made? Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration
of Independence, a wonderful achievement to be sure; as Diana
Trilling said of Jean Harris, you either have this prose or you
don't. But no history of the twentieth century will single out Peggy Noonan
as the decisive figure, unless perhaps she goes on to be elected
President in her own right. The Declaration was a clarion call to war; but its author was
personally deaf to the bang of his own war-drums. Though not a
pacifist like his Quaker friends, Thomas Jefferson never fired a
shot in anger. . .at anybody. Molly Pitcher risked more of her own skin
in defense of the revolution than did this man. Please note, I'm not
finding fault: there was no military draft in that day, even the
European despotisms were defended by professional/volunteer forces.
Jefferson violated no law in failing to enlist; he evidently felt
military matters were best left to specialists in the
field. But is a man whose battle cry was 'See you later' the obvious
choice for Mr. Revolution?
If you plan to spend your vacation visiting the great
revolutionary battle-fields of Virginia, please do not trouble to
stuff your satchel with very much clothing and supplies. When
General Cornwallis' troops advanced toward Charlottesville, the
latest temporary capital not yet abandoned, did they find their path
blocked by an embattled farmer, Thomas Jefferson, musket in hand?
No, nothing hindered their progress, nor had for some time. Thomas Jefferson, at
that time governor of the state, had skedaddled. Oddly for the
Parent of our Liberties, he spent the ensuing months in private
retirement at a farm (not Monticello, left abandoned). The Virginia
legislature subsequently convened an inquiry, wondering at the
swiftness with which Mr. Revolution had abandoned his duties. Nor
had he reached out thereafter to restore any functional membrane of
an underground state government network. Virginia
was not the Kandahar province of the Americas. The angry mobs which
blocked the path of the red-coats in Massachusetts were not much in evidence there.
The fact that substantial portions of Massachusetts' populace opposed
monarchy in principle on religious grounds probably played some role in
this noticeable regional disparity. So what ever started the myth that Thomas Jefferson was a one-man
revolution? From such intractable clay, how was a patriot hero
forged? We were already practicing post-modernism the first time the story
was told, much less the last; this is not a story that rests upon the
bedrock of observed fact, it was willed into existence; people told the
story because they liked it, not because it happened that way.
But after all, when we finish drilling down through successive turtles
and narratives, what is left beneath all the myth-making is a kernel of real achievement. No doubt his authorship of
the beautifully written Declaration along with his life-long advocacy for individual rights
left the nation with a debt of gratitude to this man, and his
subsequent election to the presidency cast a long backward shadow
covering his rather thin and watery revolutionary resume. Why was he
made into 'the' hero of the revolution? Some people elevated
this man, no doubt, simply because they liked him. People do that.
Modern-day atheists call themselves the 'brights,' implying that
others are rather dim. Their predecessors called themselves the
'Enlightenment.' Their fingerprints are all over the French
Revolution, with predictably horrific results. Despising Christianity, once
they started killing, they could not stop; turning the other cheek was
"sinking man into a spaniel," as Tom Paine famously said, so violence
once unleashed becomes an avalanche. They would like to
claim credit for the more successful American Revolution as well,
but the causal nexus is difficult to trace. There were, patently, currents
of thought stirring the land altogether outside their orbit. But they were a
legitimate thread in the fabric: the pamphleteer
Tom Paine was one of their guys, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin
Franklin were somewhat under their influence; Jefferson had even
read the skeptic David Hume. Ergo, Jefferson was the Revolution.
Even if all the red-coats ever saw of him was the back fasteners of
Benjamin Franklin, according to his autobiography, went through a
Deist period, which he repudiated on pragmatic grounds: he
discovered that free-thinkers are less likely to repay the money you
invest in them. Virtues like thrift, hard work, and cleanliness were
very important to this moralist, though they are not necessarily
central to the Sermon on the Mount. Even realizing the inadequacies
of Deism, he did not, however, rebound all the way to Christian
"I had been religiously educated as a Presbyterian; and,
though I early absented myself from the public assemblies of the
sect, Sunday being my studying day, I never was without some
religious principles. I never doubted, for instance, the existence
of the Deity; that he made the world, and governed it by his
providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing
good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be
punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I
esteemed the essentials of every religion; and being to be found in
all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all. . ."
(Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Kindle location 1344).
Is the concept that virtue will be rewarded really one of the
essentials of all religions? What is virtue? Franklin, the product
of a Christian upbringing, was naturally ashamed of vengeance,
saying ". . .forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they
deserve." (Benjamin Franklin, Franklin's Autobiography (Eclectic
English Classics) (Kindle Locations 1447-1448)). Why? Those who are
the product of a pagan upbringing, like Genghis Khan and Attila the
Hun, do not necessarily see vengeance as a negative: "Now when
Attila saw his army was thrown into confusion by this event, he
thought it best to encourage them by an extemporaneous address on
this wise: '. . .For what is war but your usual custom? Or what is
sweeter for a brave man than to seek revenge with his own hand? It
is a right of nature to glut the soul with vengeance." (Attila,
quoted by Jordanes, The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, p. 36).
Attila was a religious man, he resorted to soothsayers. These solons
of the American Revolution led sheltered lives; they simply could
not quite fathom that not everyone shared their values, which are
not natural to man but the views of a particular Teacher. And so
they had no recourse but to demonize the native Americans, for not
sharing their views as to which members of society should be
considered as non-combatants, and therefore immune from harm.
Everyone, you see, shares the same moral tenets. . .except for
monsters, beasts. It would be more helpful to frankly acknowledge, 'We
were taught to avoid vengeance. What credentials had the Teacher who
so taught us? Have we good reason to follow him?'
In order to achieve his stated goal of "moral perfection,"
Franklin included an added rubric, Number 13, "Humility. Imitate Jesus and
Socrates." (ibid., 1447). Like Thomas Jefferson, he intentionally
patterned his life, to an extent, after that of Jesus of Nazareth. A better designation should be found for
people like this than 'Deist,' a label they themselves did not
acknowledge. Unlike Tom Paine and Ethan Allen, they were not in
principle hostile to revealed religion. Nor did they dismiss Jesus
as a mythological personage; however, acknowledging Him as a sound moral
teacher, comparable to Socrates, is just about the lowest rung of
the ladder. And so 'evangelicals' they certainly
were not. Neither Franklin nor Jefferson ever trusted to the shed
blood of Jesus Christ for salvation.
They and others did, however, seek to emulate His conduct, as
Christians are exhorted to do:
"For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed."
(1 Peter 2:21-24).
The early Unitarians rather bizarrely persuaded themselves that the
doctrine of Christ's deity interfered with believers' efforts to
imitate Him, on grounds they would be discouraged to think they
could imitate God and would thus abandon the struggle, though
commanded in scripture. Their purported leader Himself
explicitly counselled the imitation of God: "Be ye therefore
perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
(Matthew 5:48). Their concept, that lowering the bar would elicit
greater effort, may have looked promising when Unitarianism was new,
as any new movement lacks the ballast of a mass of nominal
adherents. Since Unitarians no longer commonly even identify
themselves as Christians, is it not apparent this prediction has
failed? In actual experience it is those who believe in the deity of
Jesus Christ who will persevere in obeying His commands, not those
who imagine Him to have been a mere man. Men like Franklin and
Jefferson, who did not own Jesus as Savior but sought to some extent
to imitate His conduct and follow His moral teachings, were in no
way helping their cause by their unwillingness to believe He was who
He said He was. Still, their interest in following Him, even from a
distance, distinguishes them from the true Deists. Theodore Parker, a
Unitarian minister, defines the Christian church this way: ". . .and
a Christian church, as I understand it, is a body of men and women
united together in a common desire of religious excellence and with
a common regard to Jesus of Nazareth, regarding him as the noblest
example of morality and religion,— and the model, therefore,
in this respect for us." (Theodore Parker, Works of Theodore Parker,
Kindle location 298). I don't know what "religious excellence" is,
but following Jesus as our example is a Unitarian kind of thing to
say, not Deist.
The real Deists had their day, and showed the world what they